Would Christmas be Christmas without Martin Luther?
by Fr Martin Henry
As we take stock of the gifts exchanged on Christmas Day, Fr Martin Henry explores how Martin Luther saved the tradition of present-giving - especially to children - when it appeared under threat from other Reformers
PROBABLY most people who think about Christmas know, at least vaguely, that the popularity of the nativity scene crib owes its remote origins to an imaginative initiative of St Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226), arguably Christendom’s most admired and most uncontentious saint.
As related by St Bonaventure (c. 1217-1274), in the year 1223 St Francis, after obtaining prior papal permission, created a living representation in the Italian town of Greccio of the scene of Christ’s birth: the first known crib.
And perhaps the origins of the perennial Christmas Season tug-of-war between the radical simplicity and beauty of the Christian message incarnated in the nativity scene, which it was Francis’s desire to highlight, and the ever-present attraction of Mammon, which it was the Saint’s desire to discourage as a concealment of the Christian Gospel, might also be traced back to this first crib.
But be that as it may, what perhaps less frequently excites interest is the question of where an undoubtedly major element of the modern Christmas has its specific origins.
At issue here is the association of Christmas with the giving of presents.
Some might well be tempted to suspect that this latter feature of Christmas is simply the result of relentless advertising campaigns mounted year on year by commercial interests, and as such owing more to Mammon than to Christ.
Yet to jump to this conclusion, however tempting in the short run, might be somewhat rash in the long run.
It seems well established, in the West in any case, that the annual giving of presents, especially to children, was not originally connected, as is now the case, with the Christmas Season, but with the Feast of St Nicholas on December 6.
The story of how Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), eventually mutated into Santa Claus, is not what most concerns us here. Rather, it is his connection with presents that is involved.
Up until the Reformation children traditionally received gifts on St Nicholas’s Day, usually on condition that they had been well-behaved during the previous year.
When the Reformation began, however, this tradition ran into trouble, because one of the Reformers’ chief objections to Catholic practices was directed towards the veneration of the saints.
This was regarded as a possibly blasphemous distraction from Christianity’s sole concern with the Redemption offered to humanity by the divine Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Hence, apart from the iconoclastic devastation wrought by zealous followers of the Reformation on Europe’s religious artistic patrimony, at a more humble level, children were deprived of their gifts on the Feast of St Nicholas, which was now cancelled.
But while the two other main Reformers, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, remained firm in their rejection of Saints’ Feast Days, Martin Luther’s attitude seems to have been more nuanced.
Although he wasn’t keen on retaining the Feast of St Nicholas itself, there is evidence that Luther didn’t wish to abolish the idea of children receiving ‘Nicholas gifts’, to cite a term found in an account of his household expenses from the 1520s.
As the Reformation took hold over large swathes of Europe and as even prohibitions on holding traditional St Nicholas Day processions were formally issued in areas under Reformed control, Luther saved the day, so to speak, by transferring the time of giving presents to Christmas and making the Christ-child, rather than St Nicholas, the ultimate giver.
This change appears to have taken place in stages, during and after Luther’s own lifetime.
Luther himself mentions on one occasion the ‘Christ-child’ along with ‘Nicholas’, as the gift-bringer.
On other occasions he refers to a mysterious figure, the ‘Holy Christ’ or the ‘Holy Christian’, as the giver of gifts.
Some have tentatively identified this symbolic figure with an angel-like personage associated with the nativity scene.
Whatever its ultimate identity, the Reformer’s guiding principle in introducing it was, of course, to present Christ as the bringer of all good things to humanity.
Gradually, however, the Christ-child moved firmly and finally centre stage as the one bringing gifts to children.
So ultimately both the giver (the child Jesus, rather than St Nicholas) and the date (Christmas, rather than December 6) changed and henceforth Christmas became inescapably associated with the giving of gifts.
By a kind of exquisite irony, traditionally Catholic areas of Germany (such as Bavaria and the Rhineland) eventually—though only from about the early twentieth century, some historians reckon—came to accept the child Jesus as the bringer of gifts at Christmas, whereas traditionally Protestant areas of Germany began at roughly the same time to accept Santa Claus (the ‘Weihnachtsmann’—literally, the ‘Christmas-man’) as the gift-bringer, even though Santa Claus, as mentioned earlier, derived from the Catholic ‘Saint Nicholas’.
Santa Claus is derived from the Catholic ‘Saint Nicholas’ but the Reformer Martin Luther did not want the gift-giving tradition to stop
Irony aside, it appears fairly clear that Luther’s humanity, his desire not to deprive children of their gifts, has contributed to making Christmas the popular feast it now recognisably is.
His Reforming passion allowed him to combine imaginatively his overriding concern for what for him was the redemptive heart of Christianity with his desire to make the goodness of salvation palpable, and materially so, to the smallest of God’s children.
By Fr Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth and a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor, from Irish News, December 31, 2020.